Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is an embarrassment to white liberalism. Yet the film’s shameless conceit is also a monument to white liberal narcissism. As director and star, Norton adapts the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem and vies with the book’s preening cleverness. Lethem’s detective-novel pastiche, about a white gumshoe with Tourette’s syndrome, flaunted contemporary social and race consciousness when the sleuth exposes a municipal plot to disenfranchise black New Yorkers through urban planning and infrastructure redistricting: Think Humphrey Bogart in Jane Jacobs drag.
Norton outdoes Lethem’s show-offy progressivism by making the story retro. The film’s 1950s setting syncs fashionably with the New York Times’ 1619 Project, evoking America’s racist past (when blacks were called Negroes) to encourage Millennial self-righteousness — a white liberal ploy that presses black victimization. And, oh yeah, the neurologically afflicted protagonist Lionel Essrog (played by Norton) proves irresistible to the beautiful, endlessly grateful biracial heroine Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). “Funny how things turn out,” she says, falling into his arms.
It’s hard to recall another detective movie with so little tension. The good-versus-evil, power-versus-powerless dynamics are too blatant to raise dramatic tension; its film-noir cynicism is a version of the anti-American ethic taught in “enlightened” school curricula — a fancy, over-obvious lecture on equality that shifts between Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, and Harlem, in Manhattan. Norton then compounds Lethem’s literary conceit with his own cinematic arrogance through narrative and character developments that copy Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (and some of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress). Adding the cliché of Edward Hopper desolate romanticism as a visual style doesn’t help. Norton bastardizes movies that are better than he himself can make.
Exposing New York’s urban corruption doesn’t exactly compare with the Los Angeles water-wars scandal that screenwriter Robert Towne, a native Angeleno, personally unearthed in Chinatown. Norton, a Marylander with southern pride, sanctimoniously enjoys his own privilege while damning the North. (The late Elijah Cummings might have loved this movie’s conceits.)
The character Lionel is guiltless, guileless, noble, brave, and devastatingly romantic. Somehow, this Southern Poverty Law Center résumé on legs hasn’t caught on for moviegoers. Motherless Brooklyn is too self-satisfied and convoluted to allow audiences the pleasure of feeling virtuous. The villain — a Robert Moses–style city potentate named Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin — is described as “a hero of the public who hates the Negroes” but doesn’t fit the media’s current, favored example of social villainy. Randolph’s bombast about “men of my tribe, the doers, men who got things done” and his justification of his own lustful rapacity is just cartoonish white supremacy.
Hypocrisy lies at the heart of Motherless Brooklyn. Norton repeats Lethem’s white liberal error of likening Lionel’s own oddity to that of black outsiders. (Lionel’s orphan identity is variously referred to as “Freakshow,” “Bailey,” and “Motherless.”) But Lionel’s do-gooder intentions become suspicious when he visits a Harlem nightclub owned by Laura Rose’s family and he is entranced with exotic black jazz musicians — specifically, a Miles Davis type played by Michael Kenneth Williams, whose real-life facial scar conveniently allows filmmakers to exploit both his personal tragedy and their own pity.
Norton’s vanity overtakes the film when Lionel’s acted-out behavioral tics are equated to musical artistry: “Some call it a gift; the brain is off for me, too. It’s all the same.” That’s quite a simplification of bebop. And when Lionel seduces Mbatha-Raw’s half-black mammy-wench who soothes his anxieties, one can imagine Miles Davis retching.
The last movie to measure the white man’s burden as equal to the black man’s burden was Mike Nichols’s 1991 Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford’s brain-damaged Central Park West Manhattanite could relate to and communicate with only his working-class black physical therapist, played by Bill Nunn, who was Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing. I remember hip-hop fans laughing Regarding Henry off the screen. Motherless Brooklyn invites the same derision, as the latest proof that liberal Hollywood just can’t help flaunting its liberalism and defeating itself.